Learn the Secrets to Satisfaction
WHAT WILL YOU DO?
Bite into a tasty peach
Connect memory to taste
Eat with several senses at once
WHAT WILL YOU DISCOVER?
The complexity of our sense of taste
The necessity—and the trap—of a bolus
The basic textures of food
Eat a Peach
A ripe, irresistible peach is one of nature’s better pleasures. Our first step is to celebrate it.
How do you find a great peach? Begin with your nose. If a peach doesn’t smell like anything, it won’t taste like anything. Search for that tantalizing fragrance. The best peach might not be the first one that comes to hand. Dig in the bin; smell the peaches one by one, particularly at the ends where their stems once were.
Got one with an unbelievable perfume? Look at it for a second. See that rosy blush over the dappled yellow? That’s a sign you’ve chosen well.
Now gently squeeze the fruit. Although it’s heavy to the hand, there’s a delicate give beneath the skin—nothing squishy, just a little fragile, stocked with juice.
Once you’ve chosen (and paid for!) that peach, take a bite. Don’t be shy. The juice bursts from the pulp, pooling in the corners of your mouth.
Chew a few times, then gently push what’s in your mouth up against your hard palate, the roof of your mouth right behind your front teeth. Take a slow breath to draw in that sweet fragrance.
Swallow and take another bite. Because the miracle wasn’t really that peach. It’s what happened to you. You just took a step away from all that is processed, packaged, low nutrition, and poor quality. You just started down the road to enjoying food more, weighing less, and being more content with your life.
All that from tasting a peach? Absolutely.
Taste: A Seriously Underrated Sense
When we taste something wonderful, we experience some familiar physical reactions: the saliva in our mouths and a gurgle in our stomachs. But other, less familiar reactions are even more important: released chemicals in our brains set us up for both anticipation and its coming fulfillment in the neurons all along our digestive tracks, from our mouths to our stomachs and beyond.1 If we take into account the run of chemical changes among those receptors, as well as the targeted preparations from our brains to our pancreases, taste’s only rival may well be sexual arousal.
We don’t even need a peach. If we imagine it, our brains instantly release those chemicals that drive us to find one and relish it. MRI scans prove that when we think of a specific food, our brains light up the same way they do when we’re eating it.2
As you were reading about our perfect peach, you probably started salivating. Your brain was just doing its job: priming you for a peach although there were none in sight, not the slightest whiff of the fruit, just some words on a page.
Go Get Some Peaches
Put down this book and fulfill that desire. But don’t just get one. Get a bunch. After you’ve tasted that peach to find the ways it connects to deeper pleasures in your mind, try one or both of these recipes.
Don’t worry about changing any other food choices in your life. Keep doing what you’re doing. Just focus on that peach—as well as these ways to upgrade its flavors. You’ll notice that the recipes at the start of our journey are simple. We want to focus on tasting elemental flavors.
And one more thing: since you’re going to be doing some cooking on your journey to real food, Bruce and I should offer you a few tips for kitchen success:
1. Before you begin a recipe, read it through, headnotes and all.
2. In general, Bruce’s recipes call for ingredients the way you find them at your supermarket (for example, 2 celery stalks). However, when less than a whole is called for, the ingredient is measured out (like ¼ cup diced red onion).
3. Before you put a pot over the fire, gather your ingredients and put them out on the counter.
4. Make sure you’ve prepared the ingredients themselves. If the recipe says 1 medium yellow onion, chopped, it’s telling you that chopping will not be a part of the recipe itself. In other words, chop before you cook. By the way, chopped, diced, and minced are not clichés but real directions:
• Roughly chopped yields uneven pieces up to 1 inch wide;
• chopped, slightly smaller but also more uniform pieces, about ¾ inch on each side;
• cubed, small, ½-inch cubes;
• finely chopped, smaller still but less precise, about ¼-inch pieces;
• diced, ¼-inch cubes; and
• minced, the smallest of all, less than 1/8 inch, usually made by rocking a knife through an ingredient.
5. It’s better to make substitutions and changes the second time you make a recipe.
FRESH PEACH SALSA
There are no tomatoes here, just sweet peaches. Tomatoes are firmer and almost meatier; by contrast, peaches offer a luxurious richness. That said, if you can’t find a good peach, go for plums, apricots, or nectarines. Try this easy salsa on top of a baked potato with a dollop of sour cream or alongside some rotisseried chicken picked up at the market. Keep connecting the taste of those peaches to pleasure in your brain.
1½ pounds ripe medium peaches, pitted and diced (about 4 or 5 peaches)
Up to 1 medium fresh jalapeño chile, seeded and minced
½ cup red bell pepper, seeded and diced (see Note)
½ cup red onion, diced
3 tablespoons minced cilantro leaves, 2½ tablespoons stemmed thyme leaves, or 2 tablespoons minced mint leaves
2 tablespoons lime juice
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
Stir everything together in a serving bowl. If you want to make the salsa ahead of time, omit the salt and store the mixture, covered, in the fridge for up to 2 days. Salt will leach liquid from the mixture, turning it watery during storage—so stir in the salt at the last minute.
Note: To seed and core a bell pepper, stand it up on your cutting board with the stem end facing up. Holding the stem, use a large knife to slice one side off the pepper, leaving the seeds attached to the core. Continue making more slices around the pepper, always leaving the seeds and core intact. Once all the wedges have been removed around the pepper, slice off any white membranes on their insides, discard the core, and prepare the pepper as directed in the recipe.
MAKES 8 SERVINGS
A minimal amount of cooking highlights the fruit’s natural sugars by concentrating the flavors. Try these poached peaches for a midafternoon snack, a dessert at night, or even breakfast in the mornings. (Store them in the fridge for up to three days.) Serve them warm (either fresh off the stove or reheated in the microwave) with some of the poaching liquid and a little plain yogurt on the side.
4 ripe but firm peaches, halved through the stem ends, the pits removed and discarded
2/3 cup white wine or unsweetened apple juice
2½ tablespoons honey
1 cup regular or low-fat plain yogurt
1. Place the peach halves cut side down in a skillet. Pour in the wine or apple juice, then add just enough water to come halfway up the peach halves.
2. Drizzle the honey over the peaches and into the poaching liquid. Set the skillet over medium heat and bring to a simmer.
3. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer just until the peaches are tender when prodded with the back of a flatware spoon, 8 to 10 minutes. Use a large, slotted spoon to transfer them cut side up to a platter or serving bowls. The skins may be loose, may even come off. You can remove them if you’d like (although they’re fully edible, of course).
4. Crank up the heat to high and bring the liquid in the skillet to a full simmer. Continue cooking until the liquid has reduced down to about ½ cup, stirring occasionally. Set off the stove to cool for 5 to 10 minutes, then spoon this liquid over the peach halves. Top each serving with ¼ cup yogurt.
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
Remembrance of Food Past
When I was a kid, my family vacationed in Colorado. One of my fondest memories was of our annual hunt for fresh, pan-fried trout. We’d look for the perfect little restaurant: family-owned, never hyped, lots of booths.
Even today, I remember the sizzle from the kitchen after our order was placed. And I distinctly remember the year I was old enough to get my own trout. I gingerly peeled back the skin to find the tender meat inside. I felt like such a grown-up!
Decades later, I’m driven to find and relish trout. Bruce roasts it some evenings with herbs layered in the belly. It’s invariably satisfying, a link to my childhood.
That’s the true power of taste. It isn’t just in our mouths. It’s mostly in our memories.
When we bite into something—already primed with chemical anticipation—our taste buds pick up various flavor molecules (like natural sugars or sour acids), then ping neurons in our brains keyed to those very molecules. One taste bud is saying to one neuron, Here’s something you like. Except everyone’s talking at once. Constantly. And insistently.
Plus, it’s not just a set of person-to-person calls between taste buds and neurons; it’s a convocation of conference calls. Our taste buds first ring up neurons at the base of our brains, near the structures that regulate basic life functions like sleeping and breathing. Those neurons then ring up others in higher level structures, the ones that stimulate pleasure and satisfaction—and most specifically, the ones keyed to our memories. So the pleasure we experience is based on a connection to the past.3
Taste strikes both at our cores (where we operate as living creatures) and also up at our cognitive centers (where we are thinking, feeling beings).4 Congratulations, our brains tell us, you found something that both supports life and makes it memorable.
Memory stands at the center of our sense of taste—more than any other sense. Let’s say your grandparents had a swing on an old oak tree. You probably don’t sigh every time you pass an oak these days. But you probably do sigh every time you remember some wonderful dish your grandmother made. There it is: the essence of taste, that connection of memory and pleasure. It drives you to make food choices in the world around you.
But do you find real food, like that fresh trout sizzling in the skillet? No. Mostly, you find fish sticks, made from extruded, low-quality fish, fried in tasteless, heart-damaging oils—foods that don’t satisfy because they connect inexactly and poorly to memories.
Which then drives you to try to find something that does. Unsatisfied but still stimulated, you search for more. And more. And more.5 When all you want is a flavorful meal. Like this one:
Try this simple recipe for boneless, whole trout, a perfect, straightforward, and pleasurable dinner with nothing more than a green salad on the side.
Two 14- to 16-ounce boneless, cleaned trout
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Various herb sprigs, such as thyme, rosemary, parsley, oregano, tarragon, and/or dill (see Note)
1 medium lemon, very thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F.
2. Blot the trout dry with paper towels inside and out. Season the fish with both salt and pepper on the inside.
3. Divide the herbs and lemon slices between the two body cavities, sandwiching them closed to hold in the herbs and lemon slices.
4. Heat a large, oven-safe skillet over medium heat. A seasoned cast-iron skillet is really best. Swirl in the oil, then slip in the stuffed trout. Cook until the skin on one side has begun to get crisp, about 5 minutes.
5. Use a large spatula to turn the fish, then put the skillet in the oven and continue cooking until the meat will flake when gently pulled with a fork, about 8 more minutes.
Note: Good herb combinations include oregano and rosemary, thyme and parsley, tarragon and thyme, or parsley and dill. Plan on five to seven sprigs per trout (but in any case, no more than one rosemary spear per trout).
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
(CAN BE HALVED OR DOUBLED)
The Problem: Eating Without Tasting
Very early one morning last summer, Bruce and I were in the Hartford Airport, waiting to catch a flight to London. Checked in and through security, we found a place serving breakfast, ordered egg sandwiches, and took them to the gate. I soon caught myself eating like this: chew once or twice, still holding the sandwich near my mouth; chew a couple more times; the minute there’s room, take another bite; chew some more; swallow a partial bite; keep holding the sandwich near my mouth; take another bite when there’s room; swallow partially; and on and on.
It was hardly a pleasurable meal. Sometimes, food is just fuel. But in all honesty, Bruce and I eat like this more often than we’d like to admit. And we’re not alone. Over the past year, we’ve watched people at the mall food court, in adult casual restaurants, and even in high-end restaurants eat exactly the same way: the fork poised over the food before a bite is gone, the next in before the last is out, a sort of unconscious conveyor belt of eating, a few chews and then more in the mouth, never a full swallow—and never much thought to what’s happening on the plate.
The pleasure of food has been short-circuited; its connection to memory, almost nonexistent. Deep inside, we’re waiting for it, primed and standing by, the brain rush in full gear. But since we’re not finding satisfaction, we just keep eating.6
But here’s the strange thing about that brain rush: it starts out at almost full blower. Remember those MRI scans that showed the mind lighting up at the mere thought of a peach? Everything’s firing full out. However, our sense of pleasure doesn’t get any more intense the more we eat. In fact, it lessens.
Thus, by the third bite of those breakfast sandwiches, Bruce and I weren’t tasting anymore. We certainly weren’t getting any measurable pleasure. We were just eating to scratch an itch in our heads. And eating. And eating. Until we’d forgotten the point. Which is to thrive and be content.
One Solution: Eating with All Our Senses
Let’s go back to our peach. It was crucial to begin by experiencing a bit of real food with all our senses. We smelled that aroma, held the fruit in our hands, saw how beautiful it was, and heard its delicate crunch.
In other words, we tasted it fully. We took that crazy chemical dance in our heads and turned it into a slower, more elegant waltz by complicating those brain signals with more sensory input, forcing our minds to process even more information. That way, we got even more pleasure out of what we ate. We moved away from the chemical wash that is purely taste and pushed the experience into multiple senses, the better to enjoy it longer.
So here’s to eating with all our senses. Can we every time? No. But can we most of the time? Yes. If we but take the time.
And there’s the rub: time. Because eating just to fake ourselves out is efficient and quick. Relishing food takes time. It’s passionate. It requires that we taste fully and deeply.
Every day, we come across a host of things we love but eat without thought: chocolate cookies, butter pecan ice cream, banana pudding. If tasting requires time, we have to learn to make these things a meal—or at least savor them.7
So here’s a plan: no more eating on the run, in the car, on the train, while walking down the street, or while talking on the phone. If we’re going to have an ice-cream cone, let’s sit down and have one. If we’re going to grab a chocolate cookie at the mall, let’s order a cup of coffee, too, and stop to enjoy them both slowly, eating with all five senses.
Another Solution: Finding Flavor Overtones
The more memory connections we find in taste, the more pleasure we’ll experience in food.
And as we begin to use all our senses to slow down how we taste, we’ll begin to experience flavor overtones—faint flavors that ride up over the top of what we taste.
A processed egg sandwich at an airport will have few if any—and thus less pleasure bite per bite. Processed and packaged food lacks a range of overtones—because the fats are tasteless, the sugars are nothing but a vague notion of sweet, the salt is packed in with a heavy pour, and the flavors are ridiculously simplified.
By contrast, a nicely prepared breakfast of scrambled eggs, crunchy toast, and some fruit salad will have many overtones, each connected to its own, distinct flavor memory, a gorgeous dance that brings deeper satisfaction.
My mother loves vanilla, doubling the amount in any recipe. Her snickerdoodle cookies are redolent with the stuff! These days, I can catch a vanilla overtone in a glass of red wine or a slice of cantaloupe. It brings me more pleasure because it connects to more memories, most of the time not even consciously.
As you begin to taste more carefully and consciously, you’ll begin to see how flavor overtones play an important part in satiety. (And you may begin to see that what you’ve been eating doesn’t have many overtones at all.) Be on the lookout for these flavors:
Nuts of all sorts
As you slow down to relish food with all your senses, you’ll find even more flavor overtones.8 And that joy of discovery—not just the overtones but the sheer pleasure of discovery itself—will become increasingly essential to finding and relishing real food.
Fresh Is Best—When Possible
Questions of pleasure in food, of finding the best and enjoying it, sometimes call up a weird nostalgia for a blissful past when people supposedly ate right. Once upon a time, everyone walked out their doors, scooped up raw vegetables, took a bite out of a nearby cow, and went about their business.9
Um, no. New Englanders in January of any year before 1900 ate almost no fresh food. They couldn’t. Not even eggs. Hens stop laying with the loss of daylight. Everything had to be preserved and cured—for survival’s sake.
The same goes for that perfectly ripe peach. There are times when we have to buy a bag of frozen, unsweetened, sliced peaches. Are they the absolute best? No. But do they work? Definitely. They will taste luscious and light, particularly in recipes like this quick soup.
As you prepare one or both of these following recipes, think of a previous time when you had a great peach. Maybe it was just the other day when we were sampling that peach in and for itself! In any case, try to feel how one flavor is connected to a memory, even when encased among other, more complicated tastes. Relish those overtones, which then connect to still more memories and bring even more satisfaction.
CHILLED PEACH SOUP
Peaches aren’t just a side dish or a dessert. Their natural sweetness can turn even simple dishes into intense pleasures. Serve this summery soup for lunch with a salad on the side—or make it the first course before some shrimp or chicken off the grill. By the way, when a recipe asks you to whisk something, it means you should use a whisk. Stir means to use a wooden spoon.
2 pounds ripe peaches, pitted and quartered (no need to peel)
4 cups water
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt
One 4-inch cinnamon stick
½ cup white wine or nonalcoholic sparkling cider (see Note)
½ cup low-fat yogurt or sour cream
¼ cup honey
1. Bring the peaches, water, cloves, salt, and cinnamon stick to a simmer in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.
2. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the peaches are meltingly tender, about 12 minutes.
3. Fish out and discard the (hot!) cinnamon stick. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the peaches themselves to the canister of a blender or a food processor.
4. Return the saucepan to high heat and bring the liquid to a full simmer. Cook until that liquid has reduced to half its volume, about 8 minutes. Set aside to cool for 10 minutes.
5. Pour this liquid into the blender or the food processor. If you’re working with a blender, cover it but remove the center knob on the lid and place a clean kitchen towel over the opening to prevent its spewing hot peach soup everywhere. If you’re working with a food processor, remove the center of the large insertion tube on top and cover for the same reason. Blend or process until smooth.
6. Pour the puree into a large bowl. Whisk in the wine or nonalcoholic sparkling cider, yogurt or sour cream, and the honey. Chill for 1 hour, then cover and continue chilling for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Note: Although the soup tastes best if it chills overnight, it might also thicken up a bit. Stir it down to loosen it up. If that doesn’t work, add a little more wine or sparkling cider, just a splash, to get it smooth again.
MAKES 6 SERVINGS
PEACH AND GOAT CHEESE QUESADILLAS
A little bit of fat (in this case, the creamy goat cheese) intensifies the peachy flavor dramatically. Don’t worry about the calories—we’re not using that much cheese. Besides, we want to focus on the pleasure of enticing food.
2 ounces soft goat cheese or chèvre, at room temperature
Four 8-inch fat-free whole wheat tortillas (see Note)
2 ripe peaches, pitted and thinly sliced
2 jarred roasted red bell peppers or pimientos, packed in water and drained, then cut into thin strips
Several dashes hot red pepper sauce, such as Tabasco sauce
1. Preheat the broiler, setting the oven rack about 4 to 6 inches from the heat source.
2. Divide and smear the goat cheese on one side of each of the tortillas, spreading it to within ¼ inch of the perimeter of each.
3. Top two of the smeared tortillas with the peach slices and red pepper strips. Dot with a few dashes of hot red pepper sauce, as much as you’d like for your heat preference.
4. Top each of these two tortillas with one of the other tortillas, cheese side down. Set the tortilla sandwiches on a large baking sheet and place under the broiler.
5. Cook until lightly browned, then turn with a large spatula. If a peach slice slips out, just stick it back in. Continue broiling until lightly browned on the other side. Transfer to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes before slicing into pie-shaped wedges.
Note: Many fat-free tortillas are definitely real food: just flour and water without anything else in the mix.
MAKES 2 SERVINGS
(CAN BE DOUBLED OR TRIPLED FOR A FAMILY LUNCH)
Enjoy Every Bite
We should have known! While we were cutting our Peach and Goat Cheese Quesadillas into pie-shaped wedges, the processed and packaged food world was figuring out how to create a perfect bolus (boh-luhs, from the Latin bolos, meaning “clod”).
Sounds like a disease, no? A bolus is the wad of food in our mouths when we chew, right before we swallow.
A bite of pound cake becomes a bolus quickly; a piece of celery, not so much—or not without a lot of chewing. In fact, celery may never become a true bolus, remaining a loose aggregate in the mouth. That’s why we want to dunk it in a creamy dip. It softens the impact.
There’s a range of effort required to get a bolus from foods. Pasta from refined, white flour becomes a bolus more easily than noodles from whole wheat flour. Ground meat? More quickly than steak. Cheese? More quickly than a pear—and much more quickly than an apple.
That said, all these things are real food. And they have a range of textures. Which is mostly how we experience boluses. When we talk about the texture of food, by and large we’re talking about how quickly it becomes a bolus.
These days, we’ve lost the range. Most of what we eat is soft. It becomes a bolus very quickly. Think about fast food, packaged cookies, smoothies, or sugary breakfast cereals after they’ve sat in the milk for half a minute.
Whatever happened to chewing?
It Was Wiped Out by Design
When Bruce developed corporate recipes at a food marketing agency in New York City in the early nineties, he had many discussions with clients and management about getting food soft enough to become a bolus quickly and effortlessly. As he tells it, there were several reasons:
1. to get us sated before we realized the flavors in our food were absurdly elementary,
2. to get us full with minimal effort, and
3. to get us in and out of a restaurant’s door as quickly as possible.
So how did he work to get a fast bolus? Three ways:
1. pump up the sugar,
2. load up the fat, or
3. do both.
Think of the sweet sauces in a chicken wrap from a fast-food restaurant. Think of fried foods: a sugar-laced batter that’s stocked with fat from the deep-fryer.
All of which stops our well-warranted attempts to taste every bite.
The Chewless Society
Our jaws aren’t what they used to be. Our ancestors ate a host of raw, tough, fibrous foods. As we began to cook over fire, we needed to chew our food fewer times per bite. Our jaws soon lost their girth.10
Chewing fewer times is pretty foundational to who we are as modern humans. It may well indicate our increased civilization: we’re better than the animals because we cook; we don’t tear and rend.
Too bad our brains still respond to chewing. We need it to be satisfied. The research is solid: people who chew more eat less.11 Chewing more means more time at the table. And people who spend more time at the table tend to consume fewer calories than those who don’t. What’s more, children in families who spend more time at the table, who don’t eat on the run, eat more fruits and vegetables (things that become boluses less quickly) as well as fewer snacks.12
As we chew, our taste buds send their signals up to our brains, which then send messages down the vagus nerve to the neurons that stretch along the enteric nervous system in our digestive tracks. By not chewing, we short-circuit that process. We swallow before we know it. We not only lose out on the pleasure of our food; but having misses cued to satiety, we’re prone to be hungry in an hour or so.
Our grandmothers were right: chewing is the first step to good digestive health. It not only cuts down on gastric stress (those large boluses that land with a thud in our stomachs), but it also releases enzymes in our saliva that begin breaking down fiber, natural sugars, and fats—and in turn cause the release of various pleasure chemicals in our cranial and enteric nervous systems.
A wider range of textures will help us chew more, eat less, and be satisfied longer. We have to relish all the textures we can experience, including these:
A Chew Test—and Three Recipes
Experience for yourself the effect of excess sugar and fat on food and its ability to become a bolus.
First, you’ll need to go to the store to buy a few things:
1. a can of pear halves packed in light syrup
2. a can of pear halves packed in juice or water
3. a fresh pear
4. a small piece of cheese, preferably a creamy cheese like Havarti or even blue cheese
While you’re at the supermarket, glance down and pick up the ingredients for one or more of the following recipes, to further explore the range of textures in food.
Okay, on to the experiment. Set your selections out on the table and have a seat. First, sample the pear packed in juice or water, then the one packed in syrup. Feel the difference in your mouth. What texture does the extra sugar bring to the pear? A slight slipperiness?
Now take a bite from the fresh pear. Notice that crunch. Notice the more pressing way you have to work the food in your mouth. But is it buzzing? Are you salivating? Probably—and maybe more so than you were with the other two versions of the pear.
As to their tastes, if you had to rate the three in terms of fragrance, how would they stack up against one another? And in terms of texture? How are the three different? Does the sugar in the syrup mask flavors in any way?
Which one most quickly becomes a bolus? Which one is the easiest to swallow? Taste a little piece of cheese with a bite of the fresh pear. Besides the obvious shift in taste, how does the cheese, a high-fat food, change the chew of the fresh pear?
Sugar and fat dramatically alter chewing. They can modify it to good effect, adding more pleasure to what we eat (a crunchy cookie, a chicken breast browned in butter); but they can also go too far, mitigating chewing entirely, turning food into a soft, slippery bolus without any flavor overtones. They are dumped into processed and packaged foods precisely so you can swallow quickly, well before you realize the flavors are elementary, monochromatic, and uninteresting. There’s only one cure for that: real food.
THYME AND GARLIC-ROASTED SHRIMP
All shrimp are sold by weight. Labels like jumbo or large are mere window dressing; shrimp are sized by how many make up a pound. They’re also quite sweet—almost unbelievably so. But you won’t know it unless you chew them well, letting the flavors develop bite by bite. What a reward is in store for you!
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 to 10 thyme sprigs
2 garlic cloves, quartered
2 pounds medium shrimp (30 per pound), peeled and deveined (see Note)
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Pour the olive oil into a 9 x 13-inch baking dish or similarly sized roasting pan.
2. Add the thyme and garlic to the baking dish. Set the dish in the oven, then preheat the oven to 450°F for 15 minutes.
3. Add the shrimp, stir it all up a bit, then roast until pink and firm, about 8 minutes, tossing gently two or three times with a wooden spoon.
4. Remove the baking dish from the oven and stir in the vinegar, salt, and pepper.
Note: To peel a shrimp, turn it over so its legs face you, take the shrimp in both hands, and use your thumbs to pull the legs gently away from each other, tearing the shell down the middle of its underside. Peel back the shell, then grasp the very end of the tail, just at the feathery flippers, to pull the meat free. To devein it, place it on your work surface so the convex (arched) side faces up. Run a paring knife along the curve, slitting the meat only until the dark vein is revealed; use the tip of the knife to pick out the vein or rinse the shrimp to wash out the vein. Of course, you can always ask the person at your supermarket to do the job for you. Or buy already peeled and deveined shrimp right from the counter.
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
Roasting is the best way to keep the crunch and chew in vegetables. So Bruce has morphed a classic, soft stew of tomatoes and eggplant into a dinner with more tooth. For a fuller meal, melt some cheese on some crunchy bread under the broiler to go alongside it. Or set about 1 ounce of soft goat cheese in a bowl, then spoon a serving of the hot vegetable casserole on and around it.
2 medium tomatoes (about 1 pound), chopped
2 medium zucchini (about 1 pound), halved lengthwise and cut into ½-inch slices
2 small eggplants (about 1 pound), stemmed, quartered, and cut into ½-inch slices
1 large red onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon minced oregano leaves or ½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon stemmed thyme leaves or ½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375°F.
2. Toss all the ingredients in a large bowl, then pour them into a large, shallow roasting pan or oven-safe casserole.
3. Cover and bake for 45 minutes, stirring a few times.
4. Uncover and continue baking until the vegetables are tender, stirring frequently, about 15 minutes. Serve warm.
MAKES 6 SERVINGS
SALMON ROASTED WITH SALSA
This simple supper is guaranteed to get your mouth buzzing. The fish is silky and smooth, a delicious treat; but the fresh salsa stays a little crunchy, providing a contrast to the salmon.
One 1½-pound salmon fillet, skin on or off as you choose, left whole or cut the short way into 4 equal pieces
2 large tomatoes, cut into eight pieces each (about 1 pound total weight)
1 medium shallot, peeled and quartered
Up to 1 medium jalapeño chile, seeded and quartered
1 medium garlic clove, halved
2 tablespoons stemmed cilantro leaves (rinse them to remove any grit)
1 tablespoon lime juice
1½ teaspoons chile powder
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (see Note)
1. Dab a little oil on a crumpled paper towel and use it to grease a large baking sheet or oven roasting pan. Place the salmon fillet or fillets skin side down (or former skinned side down) in the pan. Set aside.
2. Place the tomatoes, shallot, chile, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, chile powder, cumin, salt, and pepper in a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Pulse a few times until coarsely chopped. If you prefer a chunkier salsa or don’t have a food processor, chop all these vegetables by hand, rocking a large knife through them repeatedly while they’re on a cutting board.
3. Spoon the tomato salsa on top of the salmon, spreading the salsa to the sides. Spoon any extra around the fish. Now position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400°F. Leave the topped salmon in the baking dish on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes while the oven preheats, so the flavors of the salsa permeate the fish.
4. Bake until hot, until the meat can be pulled into opaque, moist layers with a fork, about 20 minutes for individual pieces or 25 minutes if the fillet has been left whole. Let stand at room temperature for 5 minutes before serving.
Note: Over and over, these recipes call for freshly ground black pepper—simply because it tastes best. Buying whole black peppercorns and a pepper grinder is one small change that adds up to lots of flavor in your cooking. But how do you know how much is ½ teaspoon from that grinder? Do this experiment: make a small hash mark on the top of your grinder; starting from this point, grind pepper onto a cutting board until you get ¼ teaspoon. (Yes, this one time you’ll have to scoop and measure.) Now that you know how many turns or cranks it takes to make ¼ teaspoon, do the math for all the other permutations: two times that many cranks for ½ teaspoon, four times that many cranks for 1 teaspoon, eight times that many cranks for 2 teaspoons.
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
Putting Taste and Texture Together—or, the Sad Case of Burgers
A while back, Bruce and I had to get one of our computers fixed. From our house in the Litchfield hills of Connecticut, it’s a good hour to a computer store. No problem—it was a warm, spring morning. We decided to take the day off.
Once we got the computer checked in, we had a few hours to ourselves. We thought we’d find a place for lunch.
Across the street, we spotted one of those so-called adult casual restaurants, the kind that specializes in burgers. We drove over and got on the list.
The place was packed: a twenty-minute wait on a run-of-the-mill weekday. Finally, our table was called and we were given menus like circus placards. But we bucked the forced fun and ordered simply: two cheeseburgers, no fries, two iced teas.
The moment the burgers were swept to our table, they were hard to resist: the tops of the buns slightly askew, lots of shredded lettuce, the red tomato peeking out. I set mine aright and took a bite.
It was very soft. I didn’t need a drop to drink. The bun instantly balled up into a soft mass like whipped bread. Two chews and there wasn’t much left.
The lettuce and tomato were tasteless, no flavor overtones at all. Yes, there was some crunch, but minimal, certainly nothing that required more than a chew or two. It was more like the notion of crunch.
I took another bite. I couldn’t get over how soft it was—not velvety, but a little spongy. And sweet. Very sweet. But without any distinction as to what kind of sweet. Not like that peach with its various perfumes, a range of flavor notes. Instead, this registered as generic sweet. And unbelievably salty, too.
“I think I see a meat patty in there,” Bruce said.
I picked at it with my fork. It pulled apart unattractively, stringy and slick. Despite being a ¼ inch thick, it was smooth, without much texture.
Yet I took another bite. And another. Bruce, too. Because that burger had pushed our appetites into overdrive. We downed our meal in less time than we had waited for the table. We paid and made it back to the mall—only to find ourselves eyeing the muffins in the food court an hour later. That’s not being satisfied. That’s being overfed, undersatisfied, and overweight. Not because of what we ate. But because of what went into what we ate.
How Real Food Becomes Fake
A burger could be consummately real food: lean ground beef, lots of chopped or sliced vegetables, and grains (in the bun, of course). Add a salad with crunchy veggies and there’s a meal almost any nutritionist would like.
Except a burger barely exists as real food anymore. The beef is probably of poor quality, fairly tasteless but still greasy, a slick film on the lips.13 It’s probably been ground and preshaped in a facility hundreds of miles from the restaurant, then trucked in. And the patty may well include industrial filler, made by deodorizing and tenderizing ground snouts, cartilage, and even less savory bits with ammonia and other chemical shenanigans.
The lettuce? In our hydrator at home, it goes squishy in a week. But on those burgers, it’s been prechopped, probably traveled interstate in a plastic bag, sealed for who knows how long, and stored in the fridge until someone was ready to open it and plop it on the patty—right under that sliced tomato which was most likely picked green and ripened with ethylene gas, an induced bit of red in an otherwise fibrous slice.
Cheese is an art, a lifetime of craft in every bite. And definitely real food. But the squares on our burgers? Merely shaped oil with a slight tang. Take a look at the single slices in the supermarket sometime. Why are they called cheese food and not cheese?
And finally, those alleged grains in the bun. They’re barely there, refined until almost unrecognizable, then probably mixed with corn syrup as well as stabilizers, all to keep the buns fresh for weeks on end. What’s more, that sugar pumped into the bun helps it melt on our tongues, the way sugar has a wont of doing. No need to chew. Just bite and dissolve, a bun version of a throat lozenge.
Can you believe they get us to wait in line for this stuff? It’s all a consummate fake: unsatisfying yet quite elaborate (in many ways more so than a real burger), more like a reminder than the real thing. It goes down really quickly, fills us up, and leaves us hungry two hours later. We know what a real burger is. But we don’t get it.
Still, there it is, the great modern marketing plan. So as long as we’ve enjoyed a real burger once in our lives, we’ll keep searching for it, even through a host of poor imitators and stand-ins, none of which leads to any long-lasting satisfaction.
And it’s not just burgers. It’s the same with pizza. And chicken. And cookies. And chocolate. And cheese. And bread. On and on it goes—until we’ve long ago buried the real down under the fake and convinced ourselves that the poor-quality representation is the thing itself.
This is how we suffer. We’re a country in an obesity epidemic, a country of chronic overeaters: in a constant flurry to find the real, eating too much, finding little to satisfy, and doing it all again.
One Way to Buck the Trend
All is not lost. There are ways to eat out without resorting to soft, tasteless food.
In general, look for a small restaurant where someone is not just cooking but actually creating dishes in the kitchen. Maybe it’s a little bakery that serves sandwiches and salads in a strip mall by your home; maybe it’s a nicer restaurant you’ve always wanted to try. It certainly doesn’t have to be four-star dining, but you want a place without corporate recipe development. Need some recommendations? Check out websites like chowhound.com.
Sit back and make the meal an event. Don’t rush off to the kids’ soccer practice. Instead, get a glass of wine for a starter and have an espresso for dessert. Work on chewing the food. Savor it. Try to figure out its taste and texture, the various overtones. What herbs are in there? How does the taste change bite per bite?
And if chewing is necessary for satiety, here are some tips to getting extra texture in your meal:
Ask for extra lettuce on the sandwich—or see if they have any crunchy lettuce back there, better than the squishy mesclun salad mix.
Ask for a double portion of veggies.
See if there are veggies included with another entrée you might like with yours. Look for roasted or sautéed choices, rather than those baked into casseroles or tricked out with too much cheese.
Pick the whole-grain choices.
Speak up. What can I order that has lots of texture? If the only answer is a list of things from the deep fryer, consider going elsewhere.
Find the flavor overtones, connect them to memory, discover more through chewing—then forget about it. Have a good conversation or enjoy your book. Be content with life and what sustains it: real food.
A Second Way to Buck the Trend
The other day, Bruce and I were working all morning on different projects: he was testing recipes for an Eating Well article; I was working on the scripts for a series of videos on the weightwatchers.com site. Sometime around 12:45, he called in to the study to see if I was ready to eat. To be honest, I hadn’t even known it was lunchtime!
I came in to the kitchen and saw him dishing up a simple meal he’d made in less than twenty minutes: some whole wheat pasta with a sauce made from mild turkey sausage, shredded carrots, a diced hot chile, and some marjoram.
We sat down at the dining-room table and ate a bowl. We each even had a glass of beer. We found ourselves slowing down: savoring the meal and talking about our work, the incessant deadlines of two food writers making a go of it in a bad economy.
All the while, I loved the textures of the food he’d made: crunchy celery, soft onions, a little chew to the whole wheat pasta. That full range demanded chewing—which brought out the distinct elements of the dish: the spice of the chile, the full nose of the marjoram, the sweet carrots. And yes, the salty sausage, too—which spiked my hunger and made the dish more satisfying.
In the end, that lunch took longer to eat that it did to make. Forty minutes later, we both went back to work—and neither of us was eyeing any muffins by midafternoon.
Those burgers by the mall felt spartan. After all, we ordered no fries, no bacon, no bells or whistles.14 Whereas our lunch at home was deeply satisfying, a wide range of tastes and textures, all prepared without much effort.
That’s our goal: real food. The flavors spring forward yet also need time to develop. They demand to be tasted and chewed. They are simple, recognizable, and elemental. They satisfy.
SPAGHETTI WITH SAUSAGE, CARROTS, AND FRISÉE
Here’s Bruce’s lunch in a double size for a family meal. The tastes are still pretty straightforward, but there’s a good range of textures. Savor them in every bite.
10 ounces dried whole wheat spaghetti
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
6 ounces mild Italian sausage, any exterior casings removed
4 celery stalks, thinly sliced
4 medium carrots, peeled, then shredded through the large holes of a box grater
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons minced marjoram or 1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth (see Notes)
4 cups packed, chopped, cored frisée (about 2 small heads, see Notes)
¼ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (see Notes)
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta, then stir a bit while it softens until it’s all down in the simmering water. Continue cooking, stirring once in a while, until cooked through but with still a little bite in each piece. Drain in a colander set in the sink.
2. Heat a large skillet over medium heat, then swirl in the oil.
3. Add the onion; cook, stirring often just until the onion starts to soften, about 2 minutes.
4. Crumble in the sausage. Continue cooking until it loses its raw, pink color, stirring occasionally and breaking up any chunks, about 3 minutes.
5. Add the celery, carrot, and garlic; cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes. Why add them now, not before the sausage? So that they’ll stay crunchy in the final dish.
6. Mix in the marjoram, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, nutmeg, and salt for 20 seconds, just until aromatic. Then pour in the wine, and bring to a full simmer, scraping any browned stuff off the bottom of the skillet.
7. Once the wine has come to a full simmer, add the frisée and stir well for a minute or so while it wilts.
8. Stir in the drained spaghetti and the cheese. Toss a few times over the heat so that the spaghetti absorbs some of that sauce and warms up. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir a few times to make sure everything’s mixed together.
Notes: Dry vermouth is a great alternative to white wine because once opened, it can stay on the shelf in a cool, dry place for several months.
Frisée is a slightly bitter green with long spidery tendrils. Look for tight heads with more white and pale yellow than green. If you can’t find frisée, substitute curly endive or finely chopped escarole. To chop frisée, set it on your cutting board with the root end to the left or right. Beginning at the farthest point from that root end, make ½-inch slices through the head, one after another, cutting right down to the root. Discard the root, then place all those sliced bits in a colander set in the sink to rinse them of any grit under cool water.
Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard, part-skim-milk cheese, originally from Italy but now made in the United States as well. Buy a chunk with the rind attached. There’s no way you’ll find exactly 2 ounces, so you’ll get more than you need—which will be fine since we’ll be using it quite a bit in the steps ahead. Seal it in plastic wrap and store it in the fridge. If you’re paying for the real Italian deal, the cheese’s name should be stamped on the rind. Look for pieces that are a pale creamy caramel without any desiccated bits along the edges.
MAKES 4 SERVINGS